The lesson for MLS coaches the past couple of weeks is that trying to show your authority by freezing out a star player only ends with your head in the guillotine’s receptacle. Gabriel Heinze was the latest to learn that yesterday.
Atlanta United put Heinze out of his misery after a pretty dour 1-0 loss to New England at home on Saturday. The loss was United’s eighth game in a row without a win, which currently has them 10th in the Eastern Conference, though only four points adrift of the last playoff spot, having played one game more than NYCFC in MLS’ “And You Get A Car!” standings system.
It’s been quite the fall for Atlanta, who won the MLS Cup in their second season, were only a penalty kick away from the championship game in their third, and now have had to fire their second “name” coach in just about a year’s time, the first being Frank De Boer last season. They were something of the darlings of MLS when they debuted to raucous and large crowds in Arthur Blank’s giant rectum stadium, playing some dashing football under Tata Martino. But since Martino left to take over the Mexican national team, it’s been a bit rocky.
Heinze’s tenure was under the microscope from the start. While he had great success as a manager in Argentina, it’s a different culture there, and his preseason practices and those during the regular season had players gasping for air and wondering if it was all necessary. Henize fancied himself a mini-Marcelo Bielsa (seemingly all Argentine coaches do), but Bielsa has a lot more rep to get away with some of the stuff he does. And he also hasn’t coached in a league with a players’ union like MLS. Stuff like this doesn’t fly here. Needless to say, Heinze didn’t have everyone on board from the get-go, and the kind of system he wanted to play needed total buy-in, as players must be willing to cough up a lung to play it.
Heinze attempted to install the same kind of man-marking, high-pressure murderball that Bielsa uses at Leeds United, but was too big of an adjustment for Atlanta. And even if all of it could have worked in time, Heinze’s biggest mistake was attempting to freeze out Josef Martínez from the first team to stamp his control of the team over everyone else. Rumors flew that Martínez was just as frustrated with Heinze’s methods in training, except he has the gas to say something about it that younger players do not. This is the guy who piled up 77 goals in his first three seasons in the Dirty South before tearing an ACL last season. He had returned this year, scoring twice in seven games before going off to Copa America with Venezuela. He returned to find out he would be training by himself, away from the first team.
The decision from Heinze was baffling on a couple of levels. One, Atlanta has scored the second-least amount of goals in the Eastern Conference, with just 13 in 13 games (the only team that’s been more hapless offensively is David Beckham’s wonder emporium Inter Miami with just nine, and really the best sitcom going right now). And they haven’t been unlucky in getting to that total, with just 12.6 expected-goals, third-worst in the conference. They need Martínez. Against New England on Saturday, even trailing for the last two-thirds of the match, Atlanta looked decidedly punchless. While the Revs are atop the Eastern standings, they didn’t get there by being a fortress. They’d given up at least two goals in their previous five games, that is until they saw the pop-gun attack the Five Stripes were offering without Martínez.
And they need him even more, as the team has been pretty well stripped due to the Gold Cup and MLS’ summer schedule, meaning they have to play through them. Keeper Brad Guzan, defenders Miles Robinson and George Bello are off with the US team, and on top of that midfielder Ezequiel Barco has been battling fitness and Emerson Hyndman is out for the year after blowing out his knee. Martínez’s experience would be a boon to a depleted team, and yet Heinze was that adamant about making his point.
Another factor in Heinze’s dismissal was that the United fans, some of the most passionate in the league, weren’t taking to the manager, either. The listed attendance on Saturday was 42,000, and it didn’t look to be nearly that full, for a team that averaged 52,000 in 2019, the last “normal” season. Their last home game drew 42,000 as well.
But it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. Heinze is the guy who tried to start a brawl after Argentina lost to Germany on penalties in 2006. Or the one player who thought he could engineer a transfer from Man United to Liverpool, the soccer equivalent to a McCoy going to dinner at the Hatfield’s. Or the hundreds of kicks and elbows he directed at opponents as a player. Heinze was always quick with the pointy ends of his body or mouth throughout his career, so it shouldn’t have come as a huge shock that he would be just as big of a dickhead as a manager.
He isn’t the only one. Chris Armas and Toronto FC attempted to force out Jozy Altidore and his bloated salary by isolating him from the first team. They proceeded to lose six in a row, capped off by getting their ass rubbed in the moonshine 7-1 by DC United that cost Armas his job. Altidore was welcomed back into the team and Toronto have won and drawn their last two games against two of the East’s best in New England and Orlando. Altidore also scored in their draw with Orlando, just for good measure.
MLS might not get a lot right, but its player power seems to be one of them.